Salauddin Quadir Chowdhury, leader of the Bangladesh National Party and Ali Ahsan Mojaheed of the Jamaat-e-Islami, were hanged late one night recently in Dhaka’s Central Jail. The allegations against them: committing crimes against Bangladesh during the 1971 war – although it is true that there was no Bangladesh then and the war was between Pakistan and India. Lawmakers in the Pakistan National Assembly unanimously decried the ‘flawed war crimes trials’ and urged the government to take up the matter in the International Court of Justice. The Pakistan Foreign Office expressed ‘shock and anguish’ over the ‘unfortunate executions’ but the Bangladesh government called Pakistan’s reaction ‘unacceptable interference’ in its internal affairs.
It was said by Pakistani parliamentarians that in perpetrating the executions, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid was violating a tripartite agreement signed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in 1974. The agreement had called for a spirit of ‘forgive and forget’ and the Government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with any war trials as an act of clemency. The original 1973 legislation for the establishment of war crimes had been set aside by Hasina Wajid’s father and Bangladesh’s founder Shaikh Mujibur Rehman after the tripartite agreement was signed in April 1974 for the repatriation of war prisoners. Shaikh Mujibur Rehman had said that in the interest of regional peace, no one would be put on trial for alleged crimes committed during the 1971 war. The agreement was signed in Delhi by the then foreign ministers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and had included a promise by the Bangladesh foreign minister that “the government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency.” The accord had specifically mentioned a statement by Bangladesh Premier Shaikh Mujibur Rehman saying that he wanted the people to forget the past and to make a fresh start and the people of Bangladesh knew how to forgive. The Bangladesh government had soon after the agreement revoked a tribunal it had established for the trial of what it called ‘collaborators.’
The issue resurfaced in a big way when Hasina Wajid made the trial of ‘war crimes’ accused an election promise in 2008. After winning the polls she proceeded with the trials. Two tribunals were set up, which indicted more than a dozen men, most of them from the Jamaat-i-Islami. Sentences have been handed down in most of the cases. Four men convicted by the tribunals have so far been executed. Another accused died while his appeal against conviction was being heard. The recent execution of the two Bangladeshi opposition leaders appears to have cowed down rivals of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, but critics say her success comes at the cost of free discourse. Political analysts and opposition leaders have warned that the executions have sent a signal that violence is the only political tool that works. The shock felt by the opposition which has already suffered mass arrests may lead to further bloodshed. There was still an opinion in Bangladesh that Hasina’s popularity had soared due to the overwhelming support of the people in favour of execution of war criminals. It was being claimed that the Bangladesh government followed a policy of zero tolerance against terrorism or violence, whether it pertained to religious or any other kind of activity. These quarters felt that Hasina had been getting stronger because she did not have any visible opposition. It was also true that Bangladesh had seen a rise in religious violence in recent months, with two foreigners and four secular writers and a publisher killed.
Former Indian foreign secretary Salman Bashir, when asked about the sanctity of the 1974 tripartite agreement and the recent executions by the Bangladesh government, said the assassinations in the context of sham trials had raised serious legal, moral and political issues and were obviously a travesty of justice. He said that the tripartite agreement had been violated. The leader of the opposition in the Punjab assembly, Mian Mehmoodur Rasheed submitted a resolution condemning the hanging of two Bangladeshi leaders. The resolution called the executions “tragic, brutal and biased.” The resolution also stated that executing those who believed in the ideology of Pakistan was regrettable. Former Pakistan foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed described the tripartite agreement as a legal document under which the Bangladesh government had a contractual commitment, which it needed to honour. Former Pakistani law minister and international law expert Ahmer Bilal Soofi believed the trial of those accused of ‘war crimes’ was marred by abuse of due process of law. Moreover, he said, the trials had serious issues of retrospectivity and denial of justice, besides violating Article 14 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He also said the executions violated the 1974 tripartite agreement and Pakistan could take up the issue at international forums.
Where is South Asia headed?
Syed Jawaid Iqbal